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The Fox's Secret:
Voici mon secret. Il est très simple
.
Translating into Chinese (1)

(Chinese translations) ▼ Here is my secret. It is very simple ▶ One sees clearly only with the heart ▶ What is essential is invisible to the eyes

Voici mon secret. Il est très simple -- 'And now here is my secret, a very simple secret'. This is how the fox starts telling his secret. Despite the utter simplicity of the French, there's a lot of superficial variety in the Chinese translations. This can be attributed to: (1) the lack of a standard Chinese expression meaning voici or 'here is', (2) differences between Saint Exupéry's French and Katherine Woods' English (including mistaken understanding of one vital word), and (3) attempts to make the Chinese more natural or informal.

With upwards of 50 translations of Le petit prince into Chinese, treating them like English, where there are only five, is out of the question. I adopt here a statistical approach, which is visually quite messy. To help readers navigate through the detail, variations and statistics are placed in grey boxes and can be skipped.

little princeA. STRUCTURE

The French comprises two short sentences conveying two messages:

1. The fox announces that he is about to reveal his promised secret. (Voici mon secret.)
2. The fox comments on the simple nature of the secret. (Il est très simple.)

 

43 Chinese translations divide the message into two distinct parts, like the French. Eight fuse the two sentences together. The main reason appears to be that some translations are based on Katherine Woods' English translation, which combines the two French sentences into one as "Now here is my secret, a very simple secret".


little prince 1. FIRST SENTENCE: ANNOUNCING THE SECRET

Voici mon secret | Here is my secret

Chinese doesn't have an exact equivalent of voici or 'here is'. Translators come up with of four ways of conveying this meaning.

1) 'This is my secret'

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'THIS IS MY SECRET'
 
voici
'here is'
mon secret
'my secret'

zhè
'this'

shì
'is'
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

This is a pretty straightforward expression used by about half of all translators (25).

Most insert the ubiquitous jiù of everyday speech:

'THIS IS MY SECRET'
 
voici
'here is'
mon secret
'my secret'

zhè
'this'

jiù
'exactly'

shì
'is'
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

The word jiù adds emphasis and certainty. It means something like 'precisely, none other than!', as if the fox were declaring: 'This is my secret'. In fact, 就是 jiù shì is used so often in Chinese that it's lost much of its original punch.

There is a certain amount of (mostly minor) variation on this sentence...


Variations on 这就是 zhè jiù shì:

jiù: Twenty of 25 translators using this pattern use the word jiù. Another two use the more literary form 便 biàn. Two translators don't use jiù or equivalent expressions.

VARIATIONS ON 这就是 zhè jiù shì
 
这就是 zhè jiù shì  
20
这是 zhè shì jiù omitted
2
这便是 zhè biàn shì 便 biàn substituted for jiù
(formal expression, same meaning)
2
下面就是 xiàmiàn jiù shì 下面 xiàmiàn 'next, this' substituted for zhè
(more formal effect)
1
Total
25

2) 'My secret is like this'

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In ordinary Chinese speech it's probably even more common to say 'It's like this...' in starting an explanation. Three translators use expressions meaning: 'My secret is like this' (我的秘密是这样 Wǒ de mìmì shì zhèyàng).

'MY SECRET IS LIKE THIS'
 
mon secret
'my secret'
voici
'here is'
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

shì
'is'
这样
zhèyàng
'like this'

The pattern 'My secret is like this' shows some variation...


'My secret is like this'

VARIATIONS ON 'MY SECRET IS LIKE THIS'
 
我的秘密是这样的
wǒ de mìmì shì zhèyàng de
'My secret is like this'
1
我的祕密是這樣
wǒ de mìmì shì zhèyàng
'My secret is like this'
1
我的祕訣如下
wǒ de mìjué rù xià
'My secret is like this'
1
Total
3

The third example (如下 rù xià) is a written rather than spoken form.


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3) 'I'll tell you my secret'

Twelve translators have the fox announce: 'I'll tell you my secret' (我告诉你我的秘密 Wǒ gàosu nǐ wǒ de mìmì), with a common thread of announcing the intention to 'tell the secret'.

'I'LL TELL YOU MY SECRET'
 
voici
'here is'
mon secret
'my secret'


'I'
告诉
gàosu
'tell'


'you'
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

There are many variations on this format...


'I'll tell you my secret':

(Note: [秘密] [mìmì] represents the word 'the secret', 'my secret', and variations).

VARIATIONS ON 'I'LL TELL YOU THE SECRET'
 
(我)(就)告诉你 [秘密]
(wǒ) (jiù) gàosu nǐ [mìmì]
'I'll tell you [the secret]'
7
我要把 [秘密] 告诉你
wǒ bǎ [mìmì] gàosu nǐ
'I'll tell you [the secret]'
( makes the meaning 'definite')
1
我說出 [祕密]
wǒ shuōchū [mìmì]
'I'll speak [the secret]'
1
我把 [秘密] 說出來
wǒ bǎ [mìmì] shuōchū lái
'I'll speak out [the secret]'
( makes the meaning 'definite')
1
我把 [秘密] 告诉你
wǒ bǎ [mìmì] gàosu nǐ
'I'll tell you [the secret]'
( makes the meaning 'definite')
1
送给你 [秘密]
sòng-gěi nǐ [mìmì]
'I'll give you [the secret]'
1
Total
11

A couple of translators use the particle , which identifies the object of the verb as definite and brings it forward in the sentence, placing it before the verb.

In addition to these sentences, there are actually four sentences that hide expressions of 'telling the secret' in structures like 我要告诉你的[秘密] wǒ yào gàosu nǐ de [mìmì] '[the secret] I want to tell you'. The four sentences are:

这就是我要告诉你的秘密。其实它很简单:
Zhè jiù shì wǒ yào gàosu nǐ de mìmì. Qíshí hěn jiǎndān:
'This is the secret I want to tell you. Actually it's very simple:'

这就是我送给你的秘密,一个非常简单的秘密:
Zhè jiù shì wǒ sòng gěi nǐ de mìmì, yīge fēicháng jiǎndān de mìmì:
'This is the secret I give to you, a very simple secret:'

我要告诉你的秘密很简单:
Wǒ yào gàosu nǐ de mìmì hěn jiǎndān:
'The secret I want to tell you is very simple:'

我要告诉你的秘密,其实很简单,
Wǒ yào gàosu nǐ de mìmì, qíshí hěn jiǎndān
'The secret I want to tell you, actually [it's] very simple,'


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4) 'Come and see my secret'

One translator uses a sentence meaning 'Come and see my secret'.

'COME AND SEE MY SECRET'
 
voici
'here is'
mon secret
'my secret'
--

lái
'come'

kàn
'see'
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

ba
(exhortation)

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5) 'My secret--'

One translator uses a sentence fragment: 'My secret--'. Voici is not explicitly expressed. By suddenly raising the secret, the fox is harking back to his earlier promise.

'MY SECRET --'
 
voici
'here is'
mon secret
'my secret'
x
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

This sentence pattern is actually almost identical to the amalgamated sentence that we see below.


little prince 2. SECOND SENTENCE: NOTING THE SIMPLICITY OF THE SECRET

Il est très simple | ...a very simple secret

Two main sentence patterns are used in asserting the simplicity of the secret. These closely follow the French and English originals respectively, although many who appear otherwise to be translating from the English also use the French pattern. In addition, there is a minor variant pattern used by three translators.

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1) '(It's) very simple'

31 translators use a straightforward statement that the secret 'is simple', either 它很简单 tā hěn jiǎndān or 很简单 hěn jiǎndān. Chinese doesn't use a verb like être 'to be' with a predicative adjective. The adjective can stand as a predicate by itself.

'(IT'S) VERY SIMPLE'
 
(il est)
('it is')
très
'very'
simple
'simple'
(它)
(tā)
('it')

hěn
'very'
简单
jiǎndān
'simple'

Il est très simple in French uses the personal pronoun il, where il refers back to mon secret.

In Chinese, the normal way of saying 'It is very simple' is 很简单 hěn jiǎndān ('very simple'). There's no need for a pronoun -- it's understood from the context that 'secret' is the subject -- and there's no verb 'to be' since Chinese doesn't need one with adjectives. But a number of translators use the pronoun in translation...

The translation of il est:

Translations omitting the pronoun

Of the 31 translations using this pattern, eighteen use no pronoun: 很简单 hěn jiǎndān ('(is) very simple') pattern. That amounts to over half of the translations using this pattern.

Translation as

Almost as many translators choose to literally translate the pronoun.

For a third-person pronoun, Modern Chinese originally had the word , which could be equally used for 'he', 'she', or 'it'. But in the 20th century, it was decided that in writing this pronoun should be distinguished for gender like the Western languages. Thus were born three separate characters to write the same word:

'he' or 'it' (living things, usually human, mostly male)
'she' (female living things, usually human)
'it' (animals of either gender, non-living things)

It's perhaps natural that some translators are tempted into using for il in this sentence. And indeed, altogether thirteen of the 31 translators who use this pattern use . This results in translations like 它很简单 tā hěn jiǎndān ('it is very simple').

Since the French uses il, it's not surprising that ten of these fifteen translators are translating from the French. But curiously enough, there are there are also 11 translators working from Katherine Woods' English who use the 很简单 hěn jiǎndān sentence pattern -- three of whom use . Since Woods' version doesn't use the 'it is very simple' structure at all, let alone a pronoun for 'it', we can only surmise that these translators have supplied a pronoun themselves, have been peeking at the original French, or have copied other translations.

Using makes for rather stilted prose. It was only around the early 20th century that Chinese began to use to refer to abstract concepts (as opposed to concrete 'things'). Previously it simply wasn't a part of proper Chinese prose. It's now established in the written language but is still not so common in speech. The use of here verges on translationese, the kind of language perpetrated by language students and translators who have got in the habit of translating everything literally.

Translation using 'this' 这 zhè

One translator uses the expression 这也很简单 zhè yě hěn jiǎndān 'This is also very simple'. This looks like a translation of il, but in fact probably isn't.

这也 zhè yě is a common enough collocation in Chinese. zhè refers to a phenomenon or situation in general. normally means 'also', but here it doesn't actually mean 'also' at all. It's a very natural way in spoken Chinese of softening what is being said. By saying 这也很简单 zhè yě hěn jiǎndān, the fox is playing down the difficulty of the secret, taking an attitude of gentle explanation. 这个很简单 zhè-ge hěn jiǎndān 'this is very simple' would sound mildly boasting or assertive.


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2) 'A very simple secret' (in apposition)

Ten translators use a noun phrase in apposition (我的秘密,一个很简单的秘密 wǒ de mìmì, yīge hěn jiǎndān de mìmì). This is almost certainly based on the translation of Katherine Woods. All translators who use this appear to be translating from the English.

The attributive adjective is mostly (but not always -- this is one of the finer points of Chinese grammar) followed by the particle de in Chinese. Thus 简单的 jiǎndān de 'simple'.

'A VERY SIMPLE SECRET'
 
un
'a'
très
'very'
simple
'simple'
secret
'secret'
一个
yīge
'a'

hěn
'very'
简单的
jiǎndān de
'simple (attributive)'
秘密
mìmì
'secret'

'A' in English becomes 一个 yīge in Chinese. ge is a general classifier or measure word.

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3) 'This is a very simple secret'

Two translators modify this pattern to: 'This is a very simple secret' (这是一个很简单的秘密 Zhè shì yīge hěn jiǎndān de mìmì).

'THIS IS A VERY SIMPLE SECRET'
 
ce
'this'
est
'is'
un
'a'
très
'very'
simple
'simple'
secret
'secret'

zhè
'this'

shì
'is'
一个
yīge
'a'

hěn
'very'
简单的
jiǎndān de
'simple (attributive)'
秘密
mìmì
'secret'

little prince 3. SECOND OPTION: AMALGAMATE THE TWO SENTENCES INTO ONE

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Seven translations amalgamate the two sentences into one simple pattern. This pattern dispenses with preliminaries or introductions to merely state: "The secret is very simple". Given that the fox has already announced that he will divulge a secret upon parting, this approach certainly doesn't lose any important content and has the advantage of being very succinct.

'MY SECRET IS VERY SIMPLE'
 
Voici mon secret
'Here is my secret'
 
Il est très simple
'It is very simple'
这是
zhè shì
'this is'
我的秘密
wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'
 


'it (is)'

hěn
'very'
简单
jiǎndān
'simple'


Mon secret est très simple
'My secret is very simple'
我的秘密
Wǒ de mìmì
'my secret'

hěn
'very'
简单
jiǎndān
'simple'

One translator, in addition to this sentence, goes on to add 那就是 nà jiù shì 'that is'.

我的祕密很簡單,那就是:
Wǒ de mìmì hěn jiǎndān, nà jiù shì:
My secret is very simple, it is:'


little prince 4. HOW THE PATTERNS CO-OCCUR

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The above sets of sentence patterns are combined together in different ways. The first two combinations (below) account for the lion's share of the French-based translations and account for about half the total. Translations based on Katherine Woods' English show much more variation.

HOW TRANSLATIONS COMBINE THE TWO SENTENCES
 
Sentence 1
Sentence 2
F
E
?
Total
这就是我的秘密。
Zhè jiù shì wǒ de mìmì.
'This is my secret'.
(它)很简单
(Tā) hěn jiǎndān.
'(It) is very simple'
17
4
0
21
我的秘密很简单
Wǒ de mìmì hěn jiǎndān.
'My secret is very simple'.
5
1
1
7
我告诉你我的秘密。
Wǒ gàosu nǐ wǒ de mìmì.
'I'll tell you my secret'.
(它)很简单
(Tā) hěn jiǎndān.
'(It) is very simple'
2
5
0
7
这就是我的秘密,
Zhè jiù shì wǒ de mìmì,
'This is my secret',
一个很简单的秘密。
yīge hěn jiǎndān de mìmì.
'a very simple secret'.
0
7
0
7
我告诉你我的秘密,
Wǒ gàosu nǐ wǒ de mìmì,
'I'll tell you my secret',
一个很简单的秘密。
yīge hěn jiǎndān de mìmì.
'a very simple secret'.
0
4
0
4
我的秘密是这样。
Wǒ de mìmì shì zhèyàng.
'My secret is like this'.
(它)很简单
(Tā) hěn jiǎndān.
'(It) is very simple'
1
2
0
3
我的秘密-
Wǒ de mìmì-
'My secret - '
它很简单
Tā hěn jiǎndān.
'It is very simple'
1
0
0
1
我告诉你我的秘密。
Wǒ gàosu nǐ wǒ de mìmì.
'I'll tell you my secret'.
这是一个很简单的秘密。
Zhè shì yīge hěn jiǎndān de mìmì.
'This is a very simple secret'.
0
1
0
1
来看我的秘密吧。
Lái kàn wǒ de mìmì ba.
'Come and see my secret'.
这是一个很简单的秘密。
Zhè shì yīge hěn jiǎndān de mìmì.
'This is a very simple secret'.
0
1
0
1
Total
26
25
1
52
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